After watching Fox News Channel dominate the all-news ratings competition for more than a year, Cable News Network outrated its rival for coverage of the tragic breakup of the Space Shuttle Columbia.
CNN generated a 3.2 rating from 9:15 a.m. to noon on Feb. 1, the morning seven astronauts were killed as the Columbia
disintegrated on its return from a 16-day mission. That topped the 2.6 rating from Fox News Channel and the 0.3 rating generated by MSNBC during the same time period.
CNN and Fox News each posted a 1.6 rating in the total-day period on Feb. 2, but CNN attracted 1.9 million viewers, edging out the 1.8 million drawn by Fox News. MSNBC tallied a 0.8 rating and 775,000 viewers.
In primetime, CNN posted a 1.6 rating, beating Fox News (1.3) and MSNBC (0.8).
CNN was also the top-rated news network on Feb. 2, the day after the Columbia
tragedy occurred, as it generated a 1.0 total-day rating. CNN topped Fox News (0.9) and MSNBC (0.5). In primetime that day, CNN posted a 1.2 rating, beating Fox News (0.9) and MSNBC (0.5)
CNN president of ad sales Larry Goodman said the ratings provide a boost for CNN, which markets itself as a network that that draws the most cable viewers during major breaking news stories.
"It was a confirmation that CNN is a news network and Fox is a talk network," Goodman said.
In the hours following the Columbia breakup on Feb. 1, none of the all-news networks ran commercials. CNN and Fox News began running ads during the 8 p.m. hour, while MSNBC began running ads at 9 p.m., following the simulcast of an NBC special with NBC Nightly News
anchor Tom Brokaw.
By primetime, the networks had their promotional machines in gear. Fox News ran graphics that labeled the disaster "Tragedy In The Sky: The Space Shuttle Columbia"; CNN called it "Columbia: The Shuttle Tragedy"; and MSNBC went with "Columbia
Tragedy: Search For Answers."
In terms of advertising content, Goodman said CNN followed the protocol that it puts in place following airline crashes, and didn't run ads from airlines or companies like Boeing Co.
CNN used to sell breaking news packages to advertisers, which allowed media buyers to run ads that were inserted during major breaking stories, pre-empting scheduled advertisers. But the network stopped that practice about two years ago, Goodman said.
"We didn't want to pre-empt advertisers for breaking news, and we also didn't want the administration hassles of monitoring the whole thing," Goodman said. He said the ads that CNN ran the weekend of the Columbia breakup were scheduled well in advance.
As the all-news networks prepare for an expected war in Iraq, CNN said the network's performance during its Columbia coverage boosts its confidence for the anticipated war.
Goodman said the network isn't pitching advertisers yet on war coverage, noting that "the ethics of that are questionable at best, and secondly, no one knows when it will happen, if it will happen."
But he predicted that if a war does occur, "there will be incremental business that comes to CNN because of the anticipated spike in viewership."
In one of the major news events tied to the conflict with Iraq — Secretary of State Colin Powell's speech before the United Nations Security Council on Feb. 3 — Fox News once again beat the all-news competition.
Fox generated a 2.4 rating during Powell's speech, topping CNN's 1.9 rating and MSNBC's 0.5 rating.
Both Fox News and CNN posted significant increases that day, with CNN averaging a 0.8 rating, up 60 percent from its year-to-date average. Fox News posted a 1.2 rating, up 50 percent, while MSNBC generated a 0.3 rating, flat with its year-to-date average.
MSNBC spokeswoman Paulette Song said network officials were unavailable for comment last week. Fox News Channel declined to comment, as spokeswoman Irena Steffen cited the network's policy of not talking to the reporter assigned this story.